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The Royal New Zealand Navy

CHAPTER 8 — Operations off the Coast of Syria

page 110

Operations off the Coast of Syria

ON 23 May 1941 the Prime Minister, who was in Cairo on a visit to the Middle East, sent the following cable message to the acting Prime Minister, Mr W. Nash, at Wellington: ‘At the special request of First Lord of Admiralty, I have at once agreed in the circumstances to Leander being despatched to the Mediterranean. Help of Leander type of cruiser essential to support our men in Crete. …’

Having replenished ammunition, the New Zealand cruiser sailed from Trincomalee shortly after midday on 23 May and proceeded to Aden, where she arrived at 6 a.m. on the 29th. By that time she was already too late to afford any ‘support to our men in Crete’, which was securely in the hands of the Germans and from which New Zealand and other British troops were being evacuated by the Royal Navy in a series of desperate operations. Crete was captured after a bitter struggle from 20 May to 1 June, in which the Germans were able to exploit their superiority in aircraft and airborne troops to overwhelm the gallant defence.

The losses of the Mediterranean Fleet in the Battle of Crete were four cruisers, six destroyers, and thirty small craft. In addition, damage was done to three battleships, an aircraft-carrier, six cruisers, and seven destroyers. Some of these ships were out of service for months undergoing repairs.

The Leander was therefore a most welcome and useful addition to the Mediterranean Fleet. In a message to the New Zealand Naval Board reporting that she had joined his station, Admiral Cunningham said he was ‘very glad to have her.’ He also reported that, as a result of fitting her with additional anti-aircraft armament, it was necessary to draft more men to her to man those guns. The cruiser sailed from Aden on 1 June and five days later arrived at Alexandria, where she joined the Seventh Cruiser Squadron.

By this time hostilities in Iraq had ceased, but a dangerous situation had developed in Syria. Early in May, concurrently with the arrival in Syria of a German ‘economic mission’ and other signs of enemy infiltration, German aircraft began to make use of the Syrian airfields. Three arrived at Aleppo on 9 May and two were reported to have gone on to Mosul, Iraq, unhampered by the French page 111 authorities. On 11 May more aircraft painted in Iraq colours reached Damascus, intended for the use of the Iraq insurgents.

On 14 May the Chiefs of Staff in London informed the Commander-in-Chief Middle East that he was free to act against German aircraft in Syria, notwithstanding the possible effect of such action on British relations with Vichy and the Free French. Next day the Royal Air Force attacked enemy aircraft on the ground at Palmyra. The French authorities in Syria, in making a protest, said that fifteen German aircraft had made ‘forced landings’ on Syrian airfields and ‘in conformity with the Armistice terms’ had been assisted to leave. The situation had serious possibilities if the Germans, not yet cleared out of Iraq, should obtain complete possession of Syria. To prevent this it was necessary to occupy the country.

Preparations for naval co-operation were made on 3 June at a conference on board HMS Warspite, flagship of Admiral Cunningham, and on 6 June orders were issued for the campaign (Operation exporter) to begin two days later. The naval forces to support the advance of the army were commanded by Vice-Admiral E. L. S. King, Fifteenth Cruiser Squadron, in HMS Phoebe, and included the Ajax, Coventry (anti-aircraft cruiser), Glengyle (infantry landing ship), and eight destroyers constituting Force ‘B’.

The Phoebe, Ajax, and four destroyers sailed from Alexandria at noon on 7 June and were joined by the Coventry and two more destroyers at daybreak next morning when British and Free French troops invaded Syria. Some difficulty was experienced by the ships in making contact with the head of the advancing troops, but eventually it was learned that Tyre had been occupied and the only ship support required was a few salvoes against enemy positions about a bridge across the Leontes, three miles north of the city. Early in the morning of 9 June troops were landed from the Glengyle to seize the bridge, but it had been destroyed.

As the situation on shore during the morning was too confused to permit supporting fire, Admiral King stood out to sea with his cruisers, leaving one destroyer on inshore patrol, while three others carried out an anti-submarine sweep four miles from the coast. In the early afternoon one of the latter, HMS Janus,1 sighted and engaged two large destroyers of the Guépard class.2 The Janus, hit five times, was badly damaged and stopped with severe casualties. She was saved from a most critical situation by the Jackal, Isis, and Hotspur, which screened her with smoke while they engaged the enemy ships, who retired at high speed to Beirut and were well out

1 HMS Janus, 1690 tons; six 4·7-inch guns; speed 36 knots.

2 French Guépard destroyers, 2436 tons; five 5·4-inch guns; speed 39 knots.

page 112 of the way when the cruisers came on the scene. The Janus was towed to Haifa by the Kimberley.

The Leander sailed from Alexandria in the evening of 12 June and next day relieved the Ajax in Admiral King's force, which was strengthened by six additional destroyers. An inshore squadron carried on a continual bombardment of enemy targets north of a line indicated by the army and assisted its advance to a position on the Zaharani River, about four miles south of Sidon. In the wooded areas thereabouts a number of batteries of 75-millimetre guns held up the advance for three days. Air reconnaissance eventually located the guns, which were silenced by the deliberate fire of the Jackal, Ilex, and Hero. The troops occupied Sidon on 15 June.

During the first six days of the campaign the ships had to contend with a few attacks by French aircraft. In the afternoon of 13 June, shortly after the Leander had joined the force, German aircraft made their first appearance offshore. Eight Ju88 bombers attacked the cruisers, but no damage was done to any ship. British fighters which were on their way out on a routine patrol shot down three enemy aircraft and damaged two others.

During the temporary absence of Admiral King while the Phoebe went to Haifa to refuel, Captain Bevan in the Leander was in command of Force ‘B’. The New Zealand cruiser and HMS Coventry, screened by four destroyers, were patrolling off Saida in the afternoon of 14 June when Vichy destroyers from Beirut made another effort to interfere with the inshore squadron. At 4.20 p.m. HMS Griffin reported two enemy destroyers 15 miles away in a position about six miles west of Beirut, and steaming south-south-west. The cruiser force was steering to the northward, and fifteen minutes later the Leander sighted the ships–two of the Guépard or Aigle class. Speed was worked up to 28 knots with the intention to close and engage the enemy. Two destroyers were ordered to concentrate ahead of the Leander and two to screen the Coventry, whose maximum speed at the time was 24 knots.

At 4.45 p.m., at a range of approximately 20,000 yards, the French ships altered course in succession to the northward, swinging to the westward shortly afterwards. During this movement one ship was seen to drop one and the other three large objects over their sterns. These were thought to be mines. Captain Bevan's intention was to open fire slightly outside the limit of the enemy's gun-range, but the Frenchman's course and speed and the desirability of keeping outside the range of the coastal batteries of Beirut prevented the Leander from closing to less than 20,000 yards. Force ‘B’ worked to the northward of Beirut, keeping the French destroyers under observation until it appeared that they had anchored close inshore. At six o'clock, when the British ships were returning to the south- page 113 ward, French aircraft carried out an attack, a stick of heavy bombs falling 500 yards astern of the destroyer Hero. Fighter cover had been called for and three Hurricane aircraft were later seen engaged with French fighters which presumably had escorted the bombers.

Vice-Admiral King in the Phoebe, with three destroyers, rejoined the Leander about midday on 15 June. He decided to keep the whole of Force ‘B’ at sea owing to the reported approach of a Cassard class destroyer north of Cyprus. Three destroyers formed the inshore squadron, the others screening the cruisers, who were informed that Sidon had surrendered. In the late afternoon a determined attack on Force ‘B’ was made by eight German bombers. The destroyer Isis was badly damaged by a near miss which caused flooding of her forward boiler-room. Three British fighters drove off half the bombers before they completed their attack, one bomber being shot down.

About an hour later another attack was made by from fourteen to eighteen French and German aircraft. A heavy bomb exploded close alongside the destroyer Ilex, blowing a hole in one of her boiler-rooms, which rapidly flooded. Though badly shaken, the Ilex was able to steam at 15 knots until her oil fuel became badly contaminated by sea-water. She was then towed to Haifa by the Hasty. Force ‘B’ patrolled north of Beirut during the night.

At 6.15 p.m. the French destroyer Chevalier Paul1 was sighted by air reconnaissance, steering east in a position off the Gulf of Adalia and about 60 miles north-west of Cyprus. As she was suspected to be carrying supplies and ammunition from France for Syria, No. 815 Squadron Fleet Air Arm, stationed at Nicosia, Cyprus, was ordered to attack her. Six Swordfish aircraft took off at 2.30 a.m. on 16 June and half an hour later sighted the destroyer, which had rounded Cyprus during the night, about 30 miles from the coast of Syria. A successful attack by the aircraft made one certain and two possible hits on the Chevalier Paul which was sunk. About an hour later the Kimberley and Jervis sighted the French destroyers Guépard and Valmy close inshore off Beirut. The British destroyers opened fire before they themselves were sighted and claimed to have hit one of the French ships, which retired under a smoke screen to the cover of shore batteries.

During the afternoon of 18 June the French destroyers Guépard and Valmy made a brief sortie from Beirut, but returned to harbour before they could be engaged. At dawn on 19 June the Jervis and Kingston bombarded enemy shore positions for forty minutes, the Naiad and several destroyers acting in support. That evening the Leander and four destroyers proceeded on a sweep north of Beirut,

1 Chevalier Paul, destroyer, 2441 tons; five 5·4-inch guns; seven torpedo-tubes; speed 36 ½ knots.

page 114 but nothing was sighted during the night. Three aircraft of the Fleet Air Arm bombed Beirut harbour, making four hits on a wharf and one on a suspected submarine. The night sweeps north of Beirut were made with the object of intercepting French destroyers known to be making for that port, but the only one that did arrive made the Syrian coast in daylight, escorted by about twenty aircraft.

Force ‘B’ had a brief encounter with the enemy in the course of a sweep during the night of 22–23 June. While four destroyers carried out an anti-submarine patrol to seaward, the Naiad1 and Leander, screened by the destroyers Jaguar, Kingston, and Nizam, made an inshore search. At 1.48 a.m. on 23 June, when the force was steaming south about 10 miles north of Beirut, the Naiad sighted two French destroyers close inshore and on a northerly course at a range of about 5000 yards. The enemy turned away at high speed behind a smoke screen under cover of a coast-defence battery which opened fire. The French destroyers were engaged by Force ‘B’ for eleven minutes and several hits were claimed, but it was reported subsequently that the Guépard only was hit by a ‘blind’ 6-inch shell from the Leander. Four torpedoes fired by the New Zealand cruiser and two by the Jaguar ran ashore and probably exploded on grounding, since the Kingston, rear ship of the line, heard several explosions.

This was the last occasion on which the French destroyers were engaged by Force ‘B’. Vice-Admiral King asked for and obtained a submarine to patrol off Beirut to intercept the destroyers. At midday on 25 June HMS Parthian torpedoed and sank the French submarine Souffler. From time to time enemy aircraft made high-level bombing attacks on the British ships at Haifa. In one raid during the night of 24 June, one bomb fell fairly close by the Leander but did no damage.

On the following night the Leander, in company with the destroyers Decoy, Havock, and Nizam, carried out her final sweep to the northward of Beirut, but nothing was sighted. Returning south at dawn, the destroyers bombarded enemy positions for half an hour, the shore batteries replying. At 8 a.m. on 26 June the Leander and Coventry were relieved in Force ‘B’ by HMAS Perth and HMS Carlisle (anti-aircraft cruiser) and sailed from Haifa for Alexandria, where they arrived next morning. Hostilities in Syria ceased at mid-night on 11–12 July and the armistice agreement was signed at Acre on 14 July.

In his report to Admiralty the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean, Admiral Cunningham, said the Syrian campaign had three main features from the naval point of view. Force ‘B’ provided vital

1 The Naiad had replaced the Phoebe as the flagship of Vice-Admiral King.

page 115 assistance to the army in its advance along the coast. These operations were generally very satisfactory. On the other hand, the encounters with the enemy's ships were definitely not satisfactory and it must be conceded that the honours rested with the French destroyers. This comparatively petty campaign absorbed the entire effort of all reconnaissance aircraft available for naval co-operation in the eastern Mediterranean, with the exception of those based on Malta. All reconnaissance to the west of Alexandria had to be stopped and ‘Tobruk left wide open to surprise’. Even so, the available aircraft were insufficient for the Syrian operations.1

On 16 July the Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean issued orders for Operation guillotine. This involved the movement from Port Said and Haifa to Cyprus of 50 Division and 259 Wing, Royal Air Force, and attached artillery, motor transport, and stores. The ships employed were the Leander, Neptune, Hobart, Parramatta, and Flamingo, units of the 14th Destroyer Flotilla, and a number of merchant ships.

The Leander and the destroyer Kingston sailed from Haifa on the night of 19 July and arrived at Port Said next morning. There the Leander embarked one naval officer and nine ratings as a mine-sweeping party, a heavy anti-aircraft battery, and six officers and 163 other ranks of the Royal Air Force. The Kingston embarked five officers and 152 other ranks. The ships sailed at midday and, proceeding at high speed, arrived at Famagusta, Cyprus, twelve hours later. After landing the troops, the Leander and Kingston proceeded at 24 knots to Haifa, arriving there in the morning of 21 July. Next day the Haifa Force, consisting of the Ajax (flag) and Leander, and destroyers Jaguar, Jervis, Kandahar, and Kingston, put to sea and next morning joined the Mediterranean Fleet for exercises. During the next two days the fleet carried out a sweep south of Crete.

The Leander left the fleet on 24 July and arrived next morning at Port Said. After embarking 43 officers and 830 other ranks she sailed at 26 knots in company with the destroyer Jaguar, which was carrying 380 troops. The fast minelayer Latona followed them with another detachment. The Jaguar went ahead at 31 knots for Famagusta, and when the Leander arrived there about midnight her troops were landed by the destroyer and towed lighters. She sailed an hour later and returned at high speed to Alexandria. This ended the Leander's service in the Mediterranean, orders having been received for her return to New Zealand.

After embarking her aircraft and a draft of RNZNVR officers and ratings from New Zealand, the Leander left Port Said on 31 July. She called at Aden for fuel and at Colombo, where she was

1 Commander-in-Chief Mediterranean to Admiralty, Med. 1497/00212/29 of 2 September 1941.

page 116 docked for cleaning and painting, and then proceeded to Fremantle. She sailed thence in company with the Shaw Savill liner Ceramic, which she escorted to the vicinity of Adelaide, and arrived at Sydney on 28 August. The Leander left Sydney eight days later with the Aquitania which was proceeding to Wellington to embark troops for Egypt, and arrived on 8 September, thus completing an eventful cruise of sixteen months.